Meaghen Cullen is tightening her blue belt, hoping to compete in judo in the 2004 Olympics.
Skill might help her get there, but her atttitude will lead the way.
"When I first started, I didn't take it seriously, but the last three years I have," says the 14-year-old St. Agnes student and member of the Moose Jaw Koseikan Judo Club.
Cullen won bronze in her first tournament and has rarely missed a medal since. She recently won silver at the Vancouver International tournament, improving on her fourth-place finish last year.
"I didn't really care about the medal as long as I had a good match," she says. "If I had gotten fifth out of six (with a strong effort), I would have been happier with that than with a cheap silver medal."
"People who just get medals and get them the sloppy way don't get recognized. But people who fight long and hard get recognized."
Cullen finished with a 2-1 record in the 56-kilogram class for those under age 16. The field included judokans from Canada, Japan and the United States but the only one to better Cullen was a provincial team mate, Lloydminster's Nicole Beausoleil.
"When we're fighting, we just give each other dirty looks," says Cullen of her close-to-home competition. "After the match, it's over."
"I think there's an excellent chance (of Cullen reaching the Olympics) if she keeps working hard," says Koseikan sensei Cliff Wiens. "She keeps learning and just soaks everything in. She's very coachable."
"She has progressed from my coaching now at the club level to the provincial level with Judo Saskatchewan coach Ewan Beaton -- himself a two-time Olympian and the 1995 Pan-American champion."
"She's misleading, actually," says Beaton. "She's very shy but she has her bright spots and surprises you. Definately on the mat she knows what she wants and goes and gets it."
Cullen's mat metamorphosis is symbolized by an "incredible fighting spirit," adds Beaton.
"She's not intimidated by anybody and she didn't backdown. She won her matches very convincingly and she's never satisfied."
As proven during a match at Vancouver.
"She just wanted to finish the girl even though she didn't have to and she could have coasted to the win."
Beaton adds he's impressed -- but not surprised -- by Cullen's determination.
"One thing that's true of all Saskatchewan athletes is they have great spirits," says the Winnipeg native. "I think that's something that's built into the kids in the way they're brought up. People like Mr. Wiens just brought it out."
Cullen's younger brother Glen, 13, helped draw out her competitive side, too.
"At first I was in tae kwon do," she says. "Then I just liked fighting and beating up on people like my brother."
Beaton adds Cullen will have to improve her technique and strength to maintain her edge in the coming years.
But if her physical ability ever catches up to her spirit, they just might have to reserve a spot in the Olympic Village in 2004.
Appeared in the Moose Jaw Times-Herald Dec 9, 1997